Speaking about Radicalisation in the Public Sphere

Given the prevalence of stories of terrorism, violence, fundamentalism, extremism, and radicalisation in the press, the need for an academic account of the construction and employment of these terms is clearly needed. The issues raised in this podcast by Matthew Francis really hit the nail on the head, and it does an excellent job of covering many key issues. Therefore, in this response, my aim will be very much to amplify some of the concerns and issues picked up. In particular, I will raise some questions about the role of academics who work in this and related fields, as well as how to get academic discourse into the public square.

Firstly, beyond the contested term radicalisation, I have thrown a whole set of often related terms into the mix: terrorism, violence, extremism, and fundamentalism. Some of these are raised in the podcast, in particular the often-presumed link of what is generally call radicalisation and what we tend to call terrorism. As Francis rightly notes, radicalisation and violence are not necessarily linked: people can be what we call radicalised without becoming violent, while many people are violent without being seen as being radicalised. In the general discourse, particularly in the media, all these terms are often seen as somewhat synonymous, which raises the ever important question about the baggage these terms hold, and what is hidden rather than revealed in using them. Are the terms analytically useful? Or do they have some other utility, perhaps in terms of communicating ideas? I leave that point hanging as different scholars vary on what terms they choose to employ or not employ, and will turn now specifically to radicalisation.

As the podcast notes, radicalisation is in some ways a meaningless word. The point Francis makes is that it is simply socialisation by another name. As such, there is not some magical or special set of things which radicalisers do which makes people into radicals. Relevant to Francis’ argument is Marc Sageman’s work on pathways into terror networks in terms of what is generally termed the “bunch of guys” phenomenon. That is, it is often friendship circles and the desire to be part of the group, or not let others down, which is often a primary factor rather than anything which seems to be commonly imagined as radicalisation. Certainly there often are ideological drivers or discontents but people are rarely, if ever, radicalised online by seeing material there without some form of interaction with peers and friendships playing a role.

Yet, I suggest that viewing radicalisation as a form of socialisation makes it both easier and trickier to mediate the term and engage in public discussion. Easier because it means you don’t need any special tools to study or explain it. It is also easier because people can get a better sense of how it happens – we are all inculcated into particular worldviews. However, it is trickier in several ways.

First, and perhaps most importantly – bringing to mind Hannah Arendt’s phrase “the banality of evil” – we are not looking for monsters or monstrous ideologies as the foundation. This is not an answer which some people want to hear. Another reason it is trickier is because if radicalisation is simply another form of socialisation it also raises the question as to why society terms certain things this way. So we have to ask questions about what society thinks is radical. An example used in the podcast is the Suffragette movement, a radical and sometimes violent movement in its contemporary context, but as Francis notes, today we would more likely see somebody who didn’t believe in women’s suffrage as the radical. This raises questions about our normative worldviews: is the question of who is radical simply subjective and culturally and historically determined? If so does it lead scholars to political quiescence? If we see gender prejudice do we ignore it because all values are simply relative? I suspect we would mostly sharply withdraw from such relativism, however, it then means we need to find a way of drawing some boundaries.

Another issue, raised above, by this is the connection, if any, between radicalisation and violent behaviour: why do certain people turn to violent behaviour, typically termed terrorism in these cases?  Within the space of this response it is impossible to follow up the kind of research that has gone into those who turn to violence, but if this is our interest (it is often what the media and politicians means when they use terms like radicalisation or extremism) we therefore need to change the questions asked. It is not (just) about how some people take paths that society sees as radical, but what psychological and social factors allow people to turn to violence to seek to enact their ideology, to defend their buddies, or defend a cause. However, as noted, we can’t pursue that here.

Francis also very usefully deals with the elephant in the room which, in the contemporary context, is Islam. As he points out, something agreed with by I think every impartial expert, Islam per se is simply not a cause of violence or terror. Indeed, he notes that there are millions of Wahhabis (as a particular Saudi form of Salafism is known) in the world but most are not terrorists or even supporters of terrorism. So even with this often-demonised ideology, let alone Islam as a whole, we simply do not see a path from religious belief or ideology to radicalism, violence, and terror. This is not to say that some people may not consider Wahhabi Islam to be a radical ideology – but again we need to ask why they make such judgements. Indeed, discussing Islam in the public sphere brings its own set of challenges.

The question of speaking to the media is one Francis addresses directly. He notes that often journalists just want a sound bite or to frame interviews for the answer they want. However, he asks if he doesn’t do it who will? Maybe some partisan figure who may reinforce negative stereotypes or perceptions he suggests. In this discussion, I also think Francis is absolutely right when he says it is often practitioners rather than policy makers or the media who are ready to listen and want to engage with the evidence – indeed, they are generally far more clued in. A minefield of professional and ethical issues is raised about how academics engage in such areas, and I won’t in the scope of this response pretend to give any answers. However, they are questions that need to be engaged and discussed not just by scholars working in such fields but, I suggest, more generally about how scholarship engages with and relates to the wider public sphere.


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